Jason Isbell fills his latest collection with a variety of voices that he doesn't really want to hear, and what makes Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit fascinating is the creeping suspicion that his voice might be one of them. It's a band record that does justice to an ambitious, garrulous and arresting songwriter. The former Drive-By Trucker turns Southern rock on its ear, marrying soul-music soundscapes to shrewd lyrics that are all about how to get older without merely marking time.
Isbell was born in 1979 in rural Green Hill, Ala., and grew up in a musical family. "My parents didn't play, but all the older generations of my family did," Isbell says. "My grandfather played, you know, six or seven different instruments. It was all real country-and-Western, bluegrass, gospel-oriented stuff. He even played a little blues music, but he didn't enjoy that as much—he was a preacher in his later years."
By the time Isbell got to the University of Memphis to study music, he'd been performing most of his life. ("I had a full academic scholarship there, and I had a music scholarship, played in the symphony and marching band," he says.) In Memphis he studied French horn and trumpet and became interested in the big band jazz of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington.
He was obviously an intelligent, thoughtful musician with big ears and a knack for arranging that came through on his 2007 solo debut Sirens of the Ditch. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit makes his gifts clearer. It opens with a mutated harmonica and goes on to feature bass lines played an octave higher than one would expect, artfully employed noise and plenty of distorted guitars. An experimental recording, it's also completely accessible, and displays Isbell's knack for reinventing old styles.
"I would love to do something that sounds like Stan Kenton, but I don't think I'm gonna be able to do that right now," Isbell says. "And I like switching from alto to tenor and havin' somebody come up over you or taking a bass guitar and moving into a higher register. That's what Ellington did—everybody was playin' a lead line on that stuff."
If jazz has influenced Isbell in subtle ways, the soul, funk and pop-music productions of the Muscle Shoals, Ala., area have provided an idiom for the songwriter to explore. Cut at Rick Hall's FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, 400 Unit feels like soul, right down to Isbell's passionate, pained singing and the gospel-flavored, triple-time groove the band essays throughout the record.
"Sunstroke" rolls along in 6/8 time, with a dark, unsettled chord progression and words that verge on bitterness. "What does it mean to give up? / Why did I call you? / I shouldn't be giving a fuck," Isbell sings. As an examination of a failed relationship, it's classic soul with added psychic backwash—an ineluctable drive to oblivion. If the great Alabama R&B singer Arthur Alexander were alive, he would probably record a cover version.
Recorded in two weeks, 400 Unit fits snugly in the tradition of in-the-pocket Muscle Shoals productions. "No Choice in the Matter" benefits from a tasteful horn arrangement by Charles Rose, and on "Good" the 400 Unit make like an all-purpose rock band with a flair for hard, concentrated playing. At times the band evokes the famed American Studios house band, while the more straight-ahead rockers suggest a Southern-fried Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
"It was pretty quick, but I didn't want to spend a hell of a lot of money on it, for one thing," Isbell says. "That's part of the Muscle Shoals tradition, or of any town that has a studio, session background. They made a lot of things really quickly. They would do something like [Wilson Pickett's] 'Land of 1000 Dances' and 'Mustang Sally' in the same day."
A first-rate student, Isbell says he spends a lot of time with the celebrated Muscle Shoals musicians and producers. "I still see them pretty frequently—[bassist] David Hood, [keyboardist] Spooner Oldham, Rick Hall, Donnie Fritts. And [guitarist] Kelvin Holly—I learned a lot from Kelvin."
Still, Isbell invents his own idiom. His songs are both cerebral and hard-edged, and if something like the Drive-By Truckers' "Self Destructive Zones" (a track from 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark, done after Isbell's departure from the band) looks back at the scene that spawned the group, Isbell's compositions feel more personal, with narratives that are often intensely moral.
He seems to have needed the space away from the Truckers, and says he was never fearful of going out on his own. "There were a lot of different things going on then that contributed to the split," Isbell says. "It definitely had something to do with the fact that I'd been married to [ex-wife] Shonna [Tucker]. It was hard enough to be on a tour bus with your current wife, and to tell you the truth, it was just more trouble than it was worth."
That is spoken like a true pragmatist and a veteran not only of the road but of various self-destructive zones that Isbell seems intent on bypassing. He says he played on the Muscle Shoals sessions for soul singer Bettye LaVette's 2007 The Scene of the Crime, but nothing he tracked made it to the finished record. "She was bouncin' off the walls in there," Isbell remembers.
What Isbell is after is the intense, telling moment, and he gets it more often than not. But he's after peace of mind, too, and that's even more elusive. "For David Hood and Spooner and Donne Fritts, a lot of those folks who are that age, it's more about their life and the way they lead it," Isbell says. "What's gotten them from that point to this point without falling apart and becoming a casualty—that's really the most important thing to me."
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